A People’s History of Science

A People’s History of Science assembles lots of juicy anecdotes about the untold contributions of ordinary people to science and technology. Non-european navigators taught geography to Europen explorers — often as kidnapped hostages. Rice production in North Carolina was derived from the techniques of African slaves who were transported for their knowledge of rice culture. The canonical achievements of the scientific revolutions’s great chemists and astronomers included the contributions of un-named artisans and instrument-makers: Boyle and Brahe were as much managers and administrators as they were researchers; while the members of their labs are barely known. Major achievements in mechanical and chemical engineering had contributions from informally educated miners and brewers, Innovators including Leeuwehoek, John Harrison who invented the clock that enabled measurement of longitude, and William Smith who mapped the strata of the geological history needed to fight for credit because of their non-aristocratic social origin.
The author’s ideological point of view enables him to tell a history that would otherwise be invisible. The belief that much human knowlege has derived from the activities of working people, and that the bias of elites has obscured these contributions, enables him to assemble and organize these disparate stories into a collection. Creating a supported narrative fosters further questioning of conventional wisdom about the origins of science.
In other ways, though, Connor’s story obscures some other interesting historical questions. Conner tells the stories of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a naturalist at the time of the French Revolution whose writing about nature focused on ecological interrelationships, including phenomena such as mimicry and symbiosis. These ideas were not incorporated into biology until centuries later. Bernardin also believed in an extreme teleologism. For example, volcanoes are designed to purify the world’s water, while earthquakes are intended to purify the atmosphere. He was briefly prominent during the revolutionary period, and was excluded from the scientific establishment afterwards, for reasons combining politics and science. The interesting question is about the relationship between the validated and non-validated beliefs of early scientific figures. Isaac Newton’s practice included validated physics and invalidated alchemy; while Bernardin’s practice included validated ecosystem concepts and invalidated teleology. What is a good way to teach about these historical figures who investigated the unknowns of their time, and were sometimes right and sometimes wrong?
Similarly, Conner writes about Mesmer, the proponent of theories of “animal magnetism”, whose ideas were popularized by Nicolas Bergasse, an influential figure in the French Revolution who advocated against the dominance of the Academy. Bergasse led a social and political movement, combining healing through animal magnetism with radical social activism. The Academy thoroughly rejected “animal magnetism” as science. Conner argues that prejudice against the political views of the Mesmerists kept the academicians from uncovering the mind-body insights revealed by the hypnotic trances and spontaneous remissions experienced by the mesmerized. Conner asks a lot of the empirically minded, to patiently seek the evidence of mind-body interconnection amidst obvious evidence of charlatanism and quackery mixed with revolutionary politics. It seems easier for contemporary scientists to learn from the calm and non-evangelical masters of Tibetan Buddhism than it would have been for the committee including Ben Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier to learn from the proponents of mesmerism.
Conner’s interpretation of the scientific revolution, my favorite chapter in the book, draws from the work of Edgar Zilsel, a Marxist historian of science who fled Nazi Germany in 1938, and committed suicide in 1944. His work went into disrepute in the McCarthy era, and he wasn’t alive to complete and defend his work. Citing Zilsel, Conner shows how canonical scientific works like Gilbert’s De Magnete drew directly from the knowledge of “blacksmiths, miners, sailors and instrument makers”. Conner cites a variety of historians to argue that the high science of thermodynamics learned more from the practical inventors perfecting the steam engine than vice versa. This argument inverts conventional wisdom about the trajectory from pure research to applied, practical innovation. The “chicken and egg” arguments about scientific theory and technology reveal systematic biases driven by economic and social prejudice, and shows how the absurdities of the European caste system retarded the development of socience. But these arguments also obscure interesting questions about the interrelationships between engineering and science.
Elizabeth Eisenstein’s great work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, documents the influence of printing on the transmission of scientific and technical knowledge. Practical manuals for artisans were popular applications of early printing. The availability of technical documentation helped break down the power of guild secrecy and increase the pace of innovation. Evidently, reading and writing must have spread among artisans in order to transmit this technical knowledge.
Conner quotes Robert Boyle and other aristocratic figures who overcame their revulsion and reluctance to actually talk with vulgar tradesman. But the contrast between the Latin-learned aristocrats and uncultured brewers and bakers, barber-surgeons and traders is probably too stark, given the spread of vernacular technical literature in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The interesting topic — perhaps covered by other history — is the interrelationship between scientific theory and engineering practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. Solid studies on this topic would require not only a social filter to recapture the economic and social relationships, but understanding of the engineering and science itself. Looks like the book that investigates this topic is Science and Technology in World History.
In summary, I liked the book because of the way it gathers stories that are not told often enough. The ideology that prompts the storytelling helps to get the story told, but also obscures other parts of the story.